The naming of Lions Head

Lions Head and Signal Hill are only part of the magnificent view from many of the paths leading up Table Mountain. Set against the backdrop of Cape Town and the Atlantic Ocean they must be one of the most photographed sights in the city.

Lions Head and Signal Hill seen from Table Mountain

One of the most common questions I am asked is “why is Lions Head called Lions Head?” I must admit its not clear. The shape of Signal Hill which is also called “The Lions Rump” can be seen to resemble the back end of a lion sitting on his haunches but I really cannot see a Lions Head in the shape of the main hill.  

The name Lyons Head has been around since the 17th century when the peak was named Leowen Kop (Lions Head) and Signal Hill was called Leowen Staart (Lions Tail) by the Dutch residents of the city. The English however prefurred to call the peak by the equally odd name of “sugar loaf”

It seems that there are 3 possible explanations for the name. The first and perhaps most obvious reason behind the naming of any peak is the shape. The second is the sound of the all too frequent winds in the area.

In 1673 when a doctor visiting the Cape wrote “Lyons mount is so named from the shape that resembles the beast not from the roaring winds as mercator would have it.” This then would seem to support the 1st reason. I have already pointed out that from Table Mountain even with a very active imagination it is difficult to see the head of a lion in the shape of the peak. However, as the Cape was originally seen by sailors approaching from the sea possibly the shape is more visible from the other side. This opinion would seem to be supported by the French philosopher Bernadin St Pierre who visited the Cape in 1771. He said ” at night we found ourselves behind the mountain which at a distance appears like a lion couchant. The head is formed by a great rock and detatched from the body”

A third possible reason for the name is mentioned by Peter Kolbe in 1705. He says that “The mount recieved its name from being formerly a great haunt of lions. About 30 years ago a grim one took residence and for a considerable time made woeful havoc among the cattle”  

Whatever the reason for the name, Lions Head remains one of the most important natural features in Cape Town.